Samantha Perryman did not cry. She did not laugh. She did not sing along or cheer. She did not clap at the ends of big musical numbers. Sometimes she clutched the heavy-cloth Dalmatian in her lap and scrunched her shoulders up almost to her noise-cancelling headphones.
She was having a ball.
Ten-year-old Savannah is a runner, as parents of children on the autism-Asperger’s spectrum say: If she’s uncomfortable, she bolts from a room. So as she sat still, facing the stage with the keenness of an eagle surveying a prairie, a small miracle was happening: She was enjoying a live play for the first time.
The miracle workers at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte were offering a sensory-friendly version of the musical “Grace for President” on a Sunday afternoon. This isn’t a unique concept: Charlotte Ballet will do a sensory-friendly “Nutcracker” matinee. But only CTC has committed to one for every production this season. (The next comes Dec. 11, during the world premiere of the musical “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”)
Parents with spectrum kids like to say, “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” The proof came as you watched the crowd. Some theatergoers stood. Some grooved in their seats. One vocalized with the cast. One or two had a brief amble during the show, though only for a few feet. The room looked like an adoption clinic for cloth puppies; kids who didn’t choose them often held plump rubber toys called fidgets, which dangled from bouncing rubber bands.
Down front, resident teaching artist Sarah Diener acted as a kind of traffic cop, cueing the audience to loud noises or sudden movements by raising one or two glow sticks. Lights remained at half-brightness in the auditorium. Confetti cannons used in standard performances of “Grace” did not erupt. The cast sang and danced with gusto but modified its exuberance: A “Hamilton”-style rap number about Founding Fathers didn’t end in dinosaur-sized stomps that day.
“We try to keep S-F performances as close to regular ones as we can,” says Diener, now in her third year at CTC. “Kids on the autism spectrum are smart; they deserve the same show that everyone else gets. Though we soften it a bit, we are still responsible for good storytelling and teaching empathy for others, the things theater is supposed to do.”
A long-term commitment
Artistic director Adam Burke pondered this idea for a long time before committing to it last year.
“(Five years ago), when I’d go somewhere with my children – who were 5 and 2 – they were not quiet,” he says. “My blood pressure would go up. I’d think, ‘Am I disturbing people? Should I even be here?’ It’s much harder for parents with a child on the spectrum.
“We always talk (at CTC) about being inclusive. When we offer this program, it removes the feeling of disapproval for both the parents and the children.”
Heather Perryman, Samantha’s mom, knows that feeling. She home-schools her daughter, who first spoke at the age of 5, in Weddington after unhappy interactions with public schools. When Samantha broke into song while listening to the group Celtic Thunder in the car, the Perrymans decided to take her to the group’s concert at Belk Theater.
“It has always been a challenge to take Samantha to public places,” Heather says. “She’s 10 years old and loves to run in circles. During one show, we went to the restrooms at intermission. After coming out, Samantha saw an inlay on the floor in the shape of a circle and began running in circles. There were no people around, except for ushers. An usher came over and said, ‘She needs to stop running.’ She wasn't hurting anyone and was not in danger of hurting herself. I explained that she has autism, and running helps her. He insisted she stop. I had her stop, but I get irritated when everyone expects perfect behavior.”
Nobody does that at Children’s Theatre’s S-F afternoons. That’s because Diener recruited Julie Higginbotham – who owns Precious Developments and has worked with people with developmental disabilities for almost 20 years – to help her adapt the program.
“My job was to create a no-judgment zone,” Higginbotham says. “You don’t want families to feel they’re being accommodated or pandered to.” That meant everything from training ushers for unfamiliar situations to adapting details onstage. The title characters in “A Year With Frog and Toad” rake leaves, scraping tines along the bare floor. The squeaking sound might make autistic youngsters jump, so Higginbotham silenced the noise with tape.
Meanwhile, she drew up parents’ guides explaining what to expect, and she and Diener collaborated on making the experience relaxing. “We may not know why something works, but we know what does work,” says Higgenbotham.
That’s partly because this idea, which started in England almost a decade ago, has been so well-tested.
Theater for everybody
Theatre Development Fund’s Philip Dallmann, who consulted outside his organization with CTC, advises many productions; he’s now part of a team designing an S-F version of Broadway’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“More and more, this is the next level of access,” he says. “When you have mobility access and captioning or interpreting taken care of, this is the next community underserved. The latest statistic is 1 in 68, so there’s a definite need. I call this the most appreciative audience (actors) will ever have. They don’t go to the theater in other ways, so they give back tremendous energy.
“The mistake people make is to take out everything that could possibly affect anyone negatively. Give the audience some credit. Strobe lights have gotta go – there’s too much crossover between autism and epilepsy – and with sound, you play around the 90-decibel threshold. (The rest) has to do with context. A genie making magic with fire in ‘Aladdin’ does not disturb them, but the Phantom throws fireballs at people and tries to kill them. That’s scary.”
Dallmann says the key to succeeding is commitment: Audiences need time to find these shows, though word-of-mouth spreads quickly through the autism community. Heather Perryman is already alerting the troops, though she wishes the company could do more than one S-F show per production.
“We had never attended a play at Children’s Theatre before (and) ... did not think Samantha would sit through this type of play. (She) sat through the entire production! She did not cry because of the sounds and did not ask to leave, which is remarkable.
“The whole experience was wonderful, and we are planning on going again. We also plan to donate and spread the word to other families of special-needs children, who would love to have this experience. They showed compassion, willingness and acceptance from beginning to end.”
‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical’
When: The sensory-friendly performance is at at 4 p.m. Dec. 11; the musical runs through Dec. 23, mostly at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.